What you need to know about Gavin Williamson’s first appearance before the Defence Select Committee

Posted On: 
27th February 2018

Dods Monitoring’s Connor Smart reviews Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson’s first appearance before the Defence Select Committee, saying some may view what was revealed during the session as a key turning point.

On Wednesday 21st February, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson appeared before the Defence Select Committee for the very first time. As far as first-time performances go, the newly installed Defence Secretary will be happy with what appeared at times to be a calm and friendly atmosphere. Oddly, for Williamson there was little headline-grabbing soundbites which seemed to be a favourite of his predecessor, Sir Michael Fallon.

However, despite Gavin Williamson’s first appearance before the Defence Select Committee failing to generate headlines, the lack of coverage doesn’t mean there weren’t key pieces of doctrinal, departmental and political measures of importance which made this Committee session particularly notable.

Firstly, on procedural matters, Williamson made it clear that the National Security and Capability Review (NSCR) currently being undertaken by the National Security Advisor Sir Mark Sedwill will report its findings before the Easter Recess. This means that the NSCR will most likely come out at the end of March. 

Williamson also announced that the Modernising Defence Program (MDP) will likely be announced before Parliament breaks for summer recess. A clearer timetable of announcements, although just a procedural gesture, was welcome news for the Committee who have rightly felt that they have been left in the dark due to the closed-door nature of the NSCR within the Cabinet Office and the constant media speculation about cuts to capabilities.

It was interesting to note that the defence strand was taken out of the NSCR because, as Williamson mentioned, the process had become a straightjacket for the MoD. For the department this is quite a symbolic moment, because since the 2010 SDSR defence policy writ large has been combined within a larger national security and holistic approach. More time was needed according to the Defence Secretary to deal with the diversifying and intensifying threats that had accrued since the 2015 SDSR.

This separating out of the defence strand from the national security approach could set a precedent for future reviews where defence is split off and able to take a more departmental-based approach. However, it is important to note, as Williamson pointed out several times, that the NSCR is still informing the work of the MoD.

The second key aspect was to do with funding and the 2% NATO spending pledge. The Committee has been at pains to stress how the 2% spend of GDP on defence is not enough. Previously, the committee has highlighted the questionable accounting techniques making up current UK defence funding which puts it potentially below the NATO minimum. 

Pressed by Chairman Julian Lewis about the spending figure and whether it was sufficient, Williamson announced that he considered the 2% figure a floor. This is significant because it signals that as Defence Secretary Williamson will likely not allow MoD funding to fall below 2%. With Brexit around the corner and defence being seen as a department with "no votes" in comparison to the NHS or education the Committee must have been pleased to hear that funding will not likely fall below already historic low levels.

And lastly, Williamson’s identification of state-based and near-peer competition signalled a decisive shift from the 2010 and 2015 SDSR’s emphasis on terrorism related threats. The Defence Secretary reiterated several times that the international security environment had shifted since 2015, and dramatically from 2010. Because of this, it has been deemed crucial to invest in capabilities which have fallen by the wayside in recent years and to keep capabilities in service which as of late have had questions marks over their longevity.

This return to state-based threats will signal a move which will focus on high-end war fighting platforms, emerging capabilities like cyber, as well as personnel capacity within the armed forces. These changes will likely cost more money and which puts the Treasury right on the radar of the MoD.